- Brian Chilson
- THE CHRISTMAS TREE MAN: Randy Motley.
Though last week's 75-degree-plus temperatures probably didn't put you in mind of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose, there's one place where it's Christmas year-round: Motley's Christmas Tree Farm in south Little Rock. Now in its 30th year, Motley's has gone from being a cut-your-own tree lot to an "agri-tourism" destination, with a petting zoo, hay rides, gift shop, snack bar, a pumpkin patch at Halloween and the always-popular pig races. In the last three decades, the farm has helped build Christmas memories for whole generations of Central Arkansas residents.
Owned by Randy Motley and his wife, Linda, the farm — with more than 5,000 trees planted on about 15 acres — sells about 2,500 trees a year. Randy Motley, who worked for Little Rock printing company Magna IV for 30 years before getting into Christmas-tree farming, said he never saw himself as a farmer, but then Motley and his family went to a farm in Sardis to buy a tree.
"I looked around and thought: I could do this," he said. "A lot of people think that when they come to our farm."
In the late 1970s, Motley said, the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service started pushing Christmas trees as an alternative crop for farmers in rural areas, resulting in a tree-farm boom. When Motley's opened in 1982, the Arkansas Christmas Tree Grower's Association had about 250 members, and there were 240 commercial, cut-your-own tree farms in the state. Today, there are around 25.
"I've seen a lot of people get into it and get out of it," Motley said. "It's a lot of physical labor. A lot of people have the wrong location, in my opinion. ... I know a guy who has a farm in rural Arkansas, and he lives in Little Rock. It should be the other way around. You should live in rural Arkansas and have your farm in Little Rock. You have to be by the numbers, the biggest number of people."
Motley said his location — an easy 15-minute drive from downtown — has been key to the farm's success. It makes going to pick out a Christmas tree an enjoyable family trip to the country, something Motley's has played up in recent years. Five years ago, the farm started the pumpkin patch and pig races, in which five petite porkers dash around a rustic, wire-fenced track.
"What we're doing now is way more about a family outing," Motley said. "It's way more than just the tree. We've got a lot of stuff going on for the kids. They'll get a tree for sure. But they'll never forget all the other stuff they did out here too — hayride around the farm to pick up their tree, the petting zoo, see all the farm animals and feed them."
Motley's recently bought an additional six acres next door for expansion. Though you might think Motley could take it easy for a good six months of the year, he said it's actually grueling, year-round work, with every tree requiring a shearing at least twice a year, plus watering, weeding, mowing, and fertilizing, and that's before what Motley called "the non-stop rush" of the selling season, which runs from Nov. 17 to Dec. 23.
The farm has six varieties of trees planted and brings in other species of pre-cut trees, which are displayed in water-filled tubs. Inventory ranges in size from under 4 feet tall to 20-footers best suited to banks and other commercial buildings. Trees general go from seedling to harvest in five years, though Motley's biggest trees are 10 years old or older. Unsurprisingly, the old-timers are the most expensive, with the largest specimens selling for $225 — a good deal, Motley said, considering that ordering a similar tree from a florist or retailer could cost up to $1,500.
And about getting that big, full tree of your dreams: Motley chuckled when talking about buyers whose eyes were clearly too big for their living rooms. "I don't think I've ever had somebody come back the following year and say: 'Our tree was too small' in 30 years," Motley said. "I can't tell you how many times I've had people say: 'I don't know what we were thinking when we got that tree.' "
"Everybody gets a tree that's too big, generally," Motley said with a smile. "I think they're comparing it to the sky instead of their ceiling."